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Trevor Phelps: A New Appreciation for Drinking Water

What comes to mind when the word “research” is presented to a college student? For me, in complete honesty, I thought mostly of work that will most likely never see any real-world use. I originally was neutral towards my internship, knowing that it was a requirement I had to complete. Yet I can say now, looking backwards, my internship has taught me more than any singular class has. Real world experience makes you so much more aware of information that is needed and the skills that are used. For example, since I had both a class on water quality and my internship focused on the same subject, everything I learned in class was reinforced by my internship. The class made me understand why lead testing is so vital and why lead is so dangerous.

Crowd The Taps logo as seen above is the organization I worked for over the spring semester. To learn more, visit:

 My internship was with Crowd the Tap, a public participation project that aims to reduce the gaps of knowledge we might have on lead pipes in homes. Despite the fact that lead pipes were officially banned in 1986, not all pipes have been identified, and they linger in unsuspecting households. Thankfully, it is rather rare to encounter them nowadays, yet even the smallest amount of lead can have neurological health effects. Crowd the Tap employed myself and about another dozen or so NC State students to take charge of surveying people’s water for lead contamination. The organization also works in collaboration with Shaw University and Virginia Tech, to cover as much ground as possible. It doesn’t hurt that Virginia Tech also has world class water testing labs and the scientist who helped expose Flint’s lead crisis. One thing I was deeply appreciative of during this internship was the sheer amount of freedom it gave us to complete our goals. The way we recruited people, extra responsibilities we could pick up, and who we collaborated with was completely up to ourselves. As someone who in the past has mostly worked jobs that follow a strict to-do list, I welcomed the freedom and creativity that came from this layout. It allowed me to recruit people that I hadn’t seen in years for the survey as well as some people that I had never met before. Seeing both old and new faces, even if briefly, was something I really enjoyed rather than being cooped up in a lab or office all day. Speaking of people, I have found that the group of interns assembled are a great group of people with a wide variety of majors and interests. Everything from Food Science to Wildlife Biology, and I find it very unique to have exposure to so many people I would have otherwise never met.

I think the single most profound experience I had over the course of the internship was touring the Dempsey E. Benton Water Treatment Plant that is south of Raleigh. To begin with, we had to drive ourselves there, and we elected to carpool since that would be more efficient and ensure we all arrived around the same time. It was during the drive over that I really had my first true conversation with my fellow interns, mostly talking about career aspirations and our internship experiences up to that point. The plant reminded me of an elementary school quite honestly, it had the same tile on the floor and a rather bright, inviting atmosphere considering the barb wire fence surrounding the area. Before we could begin the tour, we had a presentation that gave us an explanation on what the machines we would walk by did, and why it was designed in such a way. The presentation certainly blew me away, as though I had a general sense of water treatment plants, the nitty gritty precision of every step was extremely impressive. I remember that we discussed the aesthetic qualities of water too, and how smell, taste, and sight of water is also taken into account when designing a water treatment plant. To be frank, it gave me a newfound appreciation for the water that comes out of my sink every morning that is clear, tasteless, and odorless.

Samuel (Left) and I (Right) practicing our presentation for the Undergraduate Research Symposium to showcase our findings

Without Crowd the Tap I can guarantee I would have never even considered that visiting a water treatment plant would have entered my mind, but I’m glad it did. Despite the positivity that learning about water quality has brought me, it also has made me more concerned about emerging chemicals and contaminants in our water, especially with the growing knowledge about PFAS and others that plants cannot filter out. Water quality is so intertwined with healthy human life, and as someone concentrating on public health, I have enjoyed seeing my two interests of environment and health combining. This internship has definitely had an effect on my career plans, as I am now considering positions in water systems and monitoring. In fact I’ve done some independent research and a specific water system that has really caught my eye is those on cruise ships since the logistics of operating such a large system in a limited area seems like a technological marvel. Its fascinating to think about how much industry and technology goes into something as mundane as water, but it is truly a remarkable achievement that so many millions of people have safe drinking water readily piped into their household around the clock.